When the lights go down and Jill Barber glides onto the stage of the Broadway Theatre, you could be excused for thinking you’re in a more glamorous place than Saskatoon in November.
Barber cuts a striking figure. There is something both sensual and playful to her. She wears a delicate dress. She seems to have a sparkle in her eyes. But it’s her voice that really shines.
Having written songs since she was a teenager and being little sister to another Canadian musician, Matthew Barber, Jill Barber began her musical career in the indie-folk scene. During this period she put out the EP Oh Heart in 2004, a full-length album For All Time in 2006 and won some East Coast Music Awards before making a surprising transition into jazz — or something akin to jazz.
Although her latest album Mischievous Moon debuted back in April at No. 1 on the Canadian jazz charts and held that spot for 13 weeks straight, Barber disagrees with that labelling.
“To be perfectly honest, I don’t totally consider myself a jazz artist,” Barber said in the dining room of D’reen’s Catering and Eatery on Second Ave. on a very snowy Friday afternoon. “But I definitely have appreciated that the jazz community has come on board with my music. I know first and foremost I’m a songwriter and a singer. I’m not a great improviser and I don’t really sing the traditional jazz standards. If I am a jazz artist, I’m probably not a typical jazz artist.”
Barber made the transition into new musical territory on her second full-length album, Chances in 2008. Gone were the solo acoustic guitar and pared-down songs. Instead the record took a number from Ella Fitzgerald, whom Barber considers to be “the best singer that has ever lived,” adding the lounge music elements of saxophone, violin, bass, drums, piano and classical guitar to Barber’s throaty, delicate contralto.
Although she didn’t expect the transition, she does speculate about what contributed to her musical change.
“With Chances a lot of the songs were co-writes,” she said. “Prior to that I’d write songs all by myself, and so bringing in other musicians and instruments kind of allowed me to play with more colours and textures in my music.”
Both Chances and Mischievous Moon were born out of collaboration. They have also been labelled as having an old-world quality to them, but Barber tries not to make her music a relic of the past.
“I’m not trying to emulate any one era,” she said. “I’m just trying to build on the tradition of great music that’s come before me…. I love older music from all different eras and that really comes out and is reflected in my music, but I like that my music sounds like it’s from a different era. But it’s not any one in particular.”
Mischievous Moon has more influences than timeless tunes of the past. It was influenced by the 1960s James Bond films — the video for the album’s first single, “Tell Me,” is styled as a James Bond film — and oddly enough, the Muppets.
“The Muppets have always been a big influence on me,” Barber said after a brief laugh. “There’s a certain aesthetic on The Muppet Show that I try to apply to my music. It’s hard to describe but it’s playful, classic — kind of fun. I’m a big fan of the Muppets.”
Barber got her start touring in coffee houses and eventually with bigger performers like Ron Sexsmith, getting to Saskatoon numerous times over the years, a city she has a certain fondness for.
“Every time I’ve played Saskatoon I’ve felt a lot of warmth from the audience,” she said. “It’s one of my favourite cities to play. I remember the very first time I played here was at the Broadway Theatre. I was opening for Ron Sexsmith and that was one of the best shows I had on that tour and so I had a very good first impression of Saskatoon and it’s always lived up to it. I love the prairies and I love people from the prairies, and I have a deep respect for people here.”
Barber has also toured with Stuart McLean of The Vinyl Café, whom she credits with teaching her a lot about entertainment and providing a greater venue for people to learn about her music.
On her tours, Barber has made it to Europe and Australia, but she thinks Dawson City in the Yukon was one of the most interesting venues she has played.
“That’s a magical place,” she said. “I kind of fell in love with my husband in Dawson City.”
In 2010, Barber married author and CBC Radio 3 personality Grant Lawrence. Her romance with her husband has inspired many of her recent love tunes. But Barber had to say goodbye to her husband this fall as she embarked on her biggest tour yet.
“This is the most extensive tour that we’ve done, myself and my band,” she said. “It’s the biggest and the longest. It’s 38 shows across the country this fall.”
After her tour finishes, Barber will take a much needed rest over Christmas before heading to France in January where she’s taking French language courses.
“I love French music and the French culture and it’s a musical kind of place so it comes out a lot in my music.”
After returning to Canada, she will go back to the drawing board in order to come up with a new album.
“This spring will be my time that I set aside to write it. I’m hoping to go back and do another artist’s residency at the Banff Centre. I hope to have it all written this spring and record it in the summer.”
While her current ideas for a new album are mere seedlings, Barber expects inspiration will present itself over the coming months.
“I don’t know what it’s going to be yet. There’s a lot more to explore on the subject of love.”
Photo: Ivan Otis